Questioning Calgary’s arts party


Design by Josh Naud

The federal government kicked in $1.6 million, the city one-upped them with $2 million and the province gave $250,000, with another $500,000 set aside to match corporate donations. It’s a tidy sum of money, all earmarked for arts and culture after Calgary was named the cultural capital of Canada (okay, one of the cultural capitals; we’re sharing it with Niagara because they hosted a war in 1812). So, what are we doing with it?

It’s an important and complicated question. The celebration will channel funds to artists and cultural organizations for projects throughout the year, but the intent of the festivities is to involve all Calgarians. How do you run a year of arts and culture activities and celebrations without watering down the creative spirit? Who is 2012 for? The artists and organizations that create culture? The audience? And what of our aboriginal heritage?

Local artist Eric Moschopedis does have good things to say about the organization and the idea of a year focused on arts and culture, but he worries that the ideological underpinnings of the event, namely the theory of creative cities, is flawed.

“Essentially it sets up, it commodifies what artists have been doing for ages anyhow,” says Moschopedis. “It finds a way to exploit, basically, what we’re doing for the purposes of market gain as opposed to cultural development and those sorts of things.”

The premise of the creative cities movement is that creative industries and the arts are an economic engine and help to improve quality of life in a city, thereby attracting business. Moschopedis worries that during 2012, artists will be used as a tool in “branding the city as a place to do business,” and promoting a quality of life that artists are rarely privy to.

He thinks there is a moral imperative to creating art and that it exists outside any economic arguments, so to focus on the economic aspect of arts and culture is a mistake.

Karen Ball, the executive director of Calgary 2012, the non-profit organization tasked with programming and funding the year’s celebrations, understands the misgivings but says that the nature of the cultural capital bid and ensuing events means reaching out to a broad audience and trying to balance the dichotomy between practitioner and ordinary Calgarian. “The farther you go out from that (arts) community, the more difference you see in how people interpret culture and how they want to celebrate it,” says Ball.

This tension between artist and audience, between differing views on what it means to celebrate arts and culture, also raises the question of dissent. In a city and a province where that word has long been viewed with suspicion, it remains a fundamental part of the creative process.

Some are concerned that the year-long celebration might focus on pure boosterism, thereby ignoring important questions and work. Moschopedis thinks that if it’s to be successful, there has to be room for criticism of the city, of the event itself and maybe even of some of the organizations that are celebrating 100 years in Calgary. “I think that there’s still room to critique these things, and by critique I don’t necessarily mean ‘say things are shit,’ but I mean to ask questions of them. I think that’s really important,” he says.

Ball insists there will be room for critical engagement. To that end, the organization has been designed as a two-pronged beast. Ball takes care of the administrative side of things, while curator and artistic director Michael Green, probably best known for his role as curator of the High Performance Rodeo, handles the creative side. “There’s zero influence from us around which project gets funded in terms of how it reflects that dialogue,” she says.

The projects will be chosen by a jury of peers in an arm’s-length process, with larger events overseen by Green. The details of those large projects aren’t clear at this time. There will be an opening ceremony of sorts, a large “mass participation” event (rumour has it that it might involve the song “Sweet City Woman”), an artist-in-residence program, a cultural exchange program, the creation of a municipal cultural plan, and a closing symposium. But some worry that it’s all party, without any thought to the hangover.

“My fear is that I can’t see any legacy,” says local artist Sharon Stevens, who worked briefly for Calgary 2012 in a clerical role. “I can’t see how the arts community is going to be stronger and healthier and more productive because of being declared a cultural capital.”

Stevens would have liked to see more thought put into improving the lives of those who suffer for their art, examining efforts by groups like Elephant Artist Relief, which works to provide health benefits and a better quality of life for artists.

There will be some small, tangible leftovers from 2012, including a micro-financing portal that allows anyone to help donate to artists through Calgary Arts Development, but for Ball it’s more about the intangible benefits. She hopes to see an increase in the number of people taking in shows and exhibitions. “What I would like to see come out of this year is when you ask anybody from Calgary to list the Top 5 things about their city, culture, or some definition of culture, is in there.”

It’s a sentiment that resonates with Terrance Houle, though he’d like to see the cultural focus shifted a touch. “In our present, I always feel like First Nations and Treaty 7 and stuff like that have always been sort of put on the back burner, or it’s always sort of the Indian Village, or things like that,” he says.

Canadian Heritage stipulates engaging four groups throughout a cultural capital year, including youth, francophone, culturally diverse communities, and First Nations.

“When the bid came up, I was going to these events and they were talking about arts and culture, and for me it’s like ‘well, why can’t you start at the beginning and move through it?’”

Houle, of Blackfoot descent, was on the 2012 aboriginal advisory committee for a time, but dropped off due to his busy schedule. It was the first committee struck by 2012 and, according to Ball, is the most active and engaged.

“I think that we talk a lot about 100-year anniversaries and we probably don’t talk as much about the 400 years before the last 100 years of Calgary, and when you look at the 600-year history of this area, you can see pretty clearly that our aboriginal heritage and roots are a really important part of how we need to reflect as a community at this point in time,” says Ball.

But it isn’t all criticism, not even from Houle, Moschopedis and Stevens, who all believe that critical discourse around Calgary 2012 is important, and who alternate between cautious optimism and dismay with the organization and events.

Simon Mallet, the artistic director of Downstage, a local theatre company that produces socially and politically engaged work, thinks of Calgary 2012 as a beginning. “I don’t think that what happens in 2012 is going to be the cumulative impact of Calgary 2012,” he says.

He’s hopeful that the year’s festivities will bring more attention to Calgary’s arts and culture — locally, provincially and nationally. Downstage applied for a grant to bring its production (B)ust— a show that examines the role of personal behaviour and the accumulation of societal debt — to neighbourhoods around the city, and hopefully engage a new audience. It’s not the easiest of topics, but Mallet isn’t worried about being shut out of funding because of that.

“Our position and our history with granting in this city has been one that has very much encouraged artistic risk and engaging with topics that might be challenging,” he says.

And maybe that’s the point. Calgary 2012 isn’t the be-all and end-all, it’s a multimillion-dollar initiative that, if anything, is meant to challenge us and to start raising questions that are long overdue. It’s not going to solve anything, it’s certainly not going to make everyone happy, but it is going to help shape our cultural future for years to come, making it an important issue.

“We want this city to be the city that we want to live in,” says Moschopedis. “I think the only way to make it that city is to be vocal. If we’re not then we’ll just be hand delivered something that isn’t necessarily what we wanted.”

This post originally appeared in Fast Forward Weekly.

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